Leaders, historians reflect on one of the 20th century's first street revolutions

  • 2005-01-19
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - One hundred years ago some 10,000 proletariats descended on Riga's Old Town to demand more lenient working rights, only to be brutally suppressed by czarist troops. Soldiers subsequently opened fire on the crowd, leaving 73 dead and 200 wounded in what became known as the 1905 Revolution.

"In the year 1905 came a new change: Never had so many people, never had such a large percentage of the Latvian nation, been ready to stand shoulder to shoulder and raise their voices with clearly formulated demands 's not only spontaneous demonstrations and meetings, but with determined action, with debates, with discussions, with plans and with a clearly formulated political demand," President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said at a commemoration ceremony in Riga on Jan. 13.

She was joined by Lech Walesa, the former leader of the Polish Solidarity Movement, who marked the event at a 1905 Revolution statue on November 11 Street, and Janis Vanags, head of the Latvian Lutheran Church, who said a prayer asking for mercy on the souls of the people who died in the revolution.

A century later, the event is remembered as much for its bloodshed as for being the first proletariat struggle that united Latvians and other nationalities in a fight for labor rights - namely the eight-hour work day 's during the last years of an increasingly unruly czarist empire. Economic development and industrialization were bringing large amounts of ethnic Latvians from the countryside to the cities, radically changing both the way of life and the ethnic makeup in Riga, which historians have said was the third wealthiest city in the Russian empire at the time (after St. Petersburg and Baku).

The revolution had its roots in St. Petersburg where earlier czarist troops had opened fire on Russian workers, killing over 100 in what was later referred to as "Bloody Sunday." The unrest took place shortly after Russia suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1904.

In Latvia, the violence was not confined strictly to urban areas. In the countryside, peasants were revolting against the hated German landlords, who were considered willing servants of St. Petersburg's policies. Latvians torched manor homes and killed members of the German landed gentry.

Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) first met with Peteris Stucka of the Latvian Social Democrats in 1906 to ask for support in staging another workers' revolution. But the uprising in Riga was largely a demand for equal rights for all nationalities, putting the Jewish Bund on the same side as the Latvian Social Democrats against Czar Nicholas II, according to history professor Aivars Stranga.

"The Latvians' relationship with the bund was one of friendship, and they supported the drive for equal rights for all. Russia's Social Democrats, on the other hand, had a very poor relationship with the Bund," Stranga said, adding that the Bund was not always the most comfortable of allies and was often more radical than the Latvians.

The cooperation proved crucial when strikes were called. At the time, nearly half of Daugavpils was Jewish, where a major strike was held on May 2.

Participants in the 1905 Revolution came from a broad background. As Stranga explained, Latvians had less disparity of wealth than their counterparts in Russia proper, making the participants in the 1905 revolution a diverse group, from intellectuals to workers.

In addition, the policy of Russification was also strongly felt in Riga and included everything from education, to architecture, to newspaper censorship. This partly accounted for why nearly all of Latvia's intelligentsia was on the side of the revolutionaries.

As a result of the unrest, the Russification program that had begun to infiltrate the Baltic school system was abandoned. "In 1905 we turned from slaves into human beings," Dainis Ivans, an independence activist and current city politician, said at the opening of a conference on the revolution.

The president, meanwhile, called on historians to intensify efforts to study the events of 1905.

"We still are not closer to realizing the idea of what kind of democracy we want to see in the country. But we have a foundation. We have a beginning, and we have to work at that," she said. "Look back 100 years. Let's remember how far we've come. Let us ensure that, after 100 years, when looking back to this day, the people will be able to say, 'Yes, that was a road post, and that was the moment a new page in history was turned, and here the nation again went a step forward.'"